OCEANSIDE — In a petite gallery space at Oceanside Museum Art, artwork by medium to maximum-security inmates from Donavan Correctional Facility line the walls from floor to ceiling.
Most of the 100 drawings and sculptures are displayed within a 9-foot by 6-foot barred space, the size of a prison cell for two inmates. Men who created the art are serving years, to life in prison.
“Part of the experience of walking through the exhibition is walking through the cell,” Tara Centybear, prison art instructor and exhibit co-curator, said.
Prison art on display is from Project PAINT: The Prison Arts INiTiative, founded by UCSD sociology student Laura Pecenco.
Pencenco piloted the arts in prison program a year and a half ago as part of her Ph.D. research, after she found arts programs had not been funded since 2010.
Following the pilot program, Project PAINT was funded through the William James Association last year, and this year.
The idea behind the arts program is to provide a safe space for prisoners to explore and express themselves.
Research says arts programs reduce violence, make prisons safer for inmates and staff, and lower the number of returning prisoners.
“Pencenco’s PhD is part of the collection of information on the positive impact art has on people lives,” Centybear said.
“It’s something prisoners benefit from just as much, or more, than your average citizen.”
The exhibit displays insightful works, which ranges from sketches, to finished drawings and decoupage, created during a 32-week course.
The process to conduct art classes in a prison is complex.
Instruction is given in yard D, an enclosed space that resembles a cafeteria.
Teachers are equipped with alarms, and must pass through a series of security checkpoints.
“Upon my first encounter it was really terrifying,” Centybear said. “You walk through gates that are volted, and marked with signs that say they are electrified.”
“We run it like any other art class to the bet of our ability. Of course there’s major constraints to what supplies we can bring in, and what kind of things we can and can’t do.”
Art supplies needed to be approved, checked in, locked up, and are only available when a prison guard unlocks them.
Inmates can also order limited art supplies through the prison, and add found objects to pieces.
“We’ve brought in gallons upon gallons of paint, and brushes, and canvas, and balsa wood, and ink,” Centybear said.
“The program is taught by contemporary artists, so we’re really trying to push their boundaries as to what they think art can be made of as well.
“They’re so resourceful, they can take the color off an M & M and use it as paint. When you have nothing, you really figure out how to use it.”
It takes time for instructors to build trust with inmates, and close the distance of personal space between them.
“We have them do portraits with each other, which staring at another man in a prison is not something they are use to doing, nor suppose to do,” Pencenco said.
“But in the art program they really have the freedom to do that, and I think that means a lot to them. They end up feeling very invested in the program, and that really coming through in terms of the work they’re able to create.”
Participating in the project gives the men a new moniker as artist.
This is the second exhibition of prison artwork. Pieces from an earlier exhibit were successfully auctioned off, and some prison artists have been commissioned to create works.
Centybear said teaching the classes has taught her to appreciate the freedom she has outside the prison.
“It sounds very corny, but going in has changed my perspective on life and how precious life is, and how one little mistake can change your life forever.”
Centybear added the exhibit brings attention to a population that is usually ignored.
“Art Transports Us Out of Bounds: Prison Arts in San Diego,” curated by Laura Pecenco, Tara Centybear, and Kathleen Mitchell, is on display at Oceanside Museum of Art through August 16.